Assorted vegetables

Miracle Foods

(excerpted from the book Tales From The Frying Pan)

By Michael Sigler
Thursday Review Contributing Writer

There is an aspect to food that is rarely, if ever, touched upon except perhaps on a few isolated occasions. As a minister and world traveled missionary, I have seen firsthand how food extends itself beyond normal bounds and is somehow relegated to the miraculous.

Most of us can point to those moments in the bible which seem to give credence to food and the supernatural, such as God sending manna to feed the children of Israel on their desert journey, Jesus changing water into wine, and the feeding of 5,000 with only a few loaves and fishes. These incidents appear few and far between, while some may even question their validity.

Let us look at some of those biblical moments, seeing if we can gain a greater understanding of what is told us in those pages of the bible. First, of course, was the account of Israel in the wilderness. Exodus 16:4 says “Behold I will rain bread from heaven for you: and the people shall go out and gather a certain amount every day, that I may prove them, whether they walk in my law or not.”

In verse 14, the word says “…and when the dew that lay was gone up, behold upon the face of the wilderness there lay a small round thing, as small as the hoar frost on the ground. And when the children of Israel saw it, they said to one another, ‘it is manna,’ for they did not know what it was.”

From those accounts the closest description would have been something that looked and tasted like coriander. Some believe it might have actually been just that, and for years after it first fell from the heavens, coriander remained a staple for the Israelites in the making of their bread.

Coriander or cilantro is an aromatic plant used both for its seeds and its leaves. The use of the seeds is much different than it is for the leaves, which remain very spicy. The Hebrews flavored their cakes with the seeds and the Romans used them for preserving meat.

Charlemagne himself encouraged the cultivation of the plant. During the 18th century the seeds were covered with sugar and chewed. Coriander has played a much bigger role in the preparation of soups, vegetables, marinades and pastries than it has in such liqueurs as Chartreuse and Izarra.

In German cuisine, coriander seeds are often used for seasoning cabbage and in marinades for game.

Probably the most classic uses for coriander are in the preparation of vegetables a la grecque. The term describes dishes of Greek origin but is also used for dishes inspired by Mediterranean cuisine. Vegetables which are cooked a la grecque are cooked with a marinade flavored with olive oil and lemon then served cold, either as an entrée or as an hors d’ oeuvre. You can easily taste coriander in pilafs mixed with sausage, peas and peppers.

In France, coriander leaves are known as Chinese or Arab parsley and in the United States, it is commonly called cilantro. Coriander is used profusely in the cuisine of Southeast Asia, China, South America and Mexico, adding a delicious flavor to whatever it touches.

One does not have to rely solely on miracle stories from the bible to discover that some of us have actually had some amazing experiences.

As the calendar turned to 1987, on January 2, my wife and I began our missions training in Los Angeles, California. When we finished our initial schooling, we then accepted staff positions, organizing and managing the campus base kitchen.

Missionary kitchens are notorious for being understaffed, under budgeted and low on the priority list of importance. My wife and I were determined to do the best with what was given us, even though doing that would require a lot of ingenuity and the help of a miracle or two.

On one occasion we were preparing the evening meal for staff and students, which totaled 150 people. Working with a limited budget, that evening’s main course was macaroni and cheese.

Those familiar tubes of pasta actually originated in Naples, Italy. As our thoughts turn to hot platters of the little nuggets intermingled with gobs of melting yellow cheddar, how many of us have really come to appreciate or understand the many additional creative ways it can be served? How about a sensational eggplant and ziti ‘timbale’ (translated ‘little drum’) to macaroni alla ciociara with sliced fried vegetables, smoked ham, and slices of sausage, to name a few.

In Naples, macaroni is served all’arrabbiata, with a spicy sauce of pimientos. The word macaroni comes from the Italian maccherone meaning ‘fine paste.’

Macaroni has been known since the 17th century. In 19th century Britain, it became fashionable to give a British slant to Italian dishes. It was also served as a dessert, showing Britain’s fondness for milk pudding.

So, back to the evening we were preparing our rather ordinary, but just enough macaroni and cheese in the campus kitchen. In the midst of zero hour mayhem, with about 15 minutes until the dinner bell was to ring, the hospitality director came into the kitchen. “Hey, remember that group of university students I told you about?”

Trying her best to be polite in a hurried state, my wife glanced over at her carefully kept calendar and answered, “Yes, a group of fifty guests, next Tuesday night. We’ll be ready for them.” Nervously she responded, “I made a mistake and gave you the wrong date. They’re coming tonight; their bus just pulled up.”

With as close to the bone as we were with food, we could only hope for that miracle. Jeanne gathered her crew together, “Hold everything, gang. We need to pray a loaves and fishes over this macaroni.” After the prayer, everyone returned to their duties.

Suddenly, the student mixing the macaroni yelped, “Look! It’s growing!” As all watched in amazement, the noodles were literally increasing in the bowl. We had our miracle, everyone got fed, ate seconds, and we even had leftovers.

During our married life together and our time as field missionaries, we have had to operate on a shoestring regularly. Many times we have had to pray in finances, pray for direction, and pray for answers. This level of believing has never been easy but there never has been a time when we have not received an answer.

If there is one thing we have always enjoyed it is being able to entertain others, especially with food. Even when we had little, it did not stop us from blessing others, and many times we did it without giving it a lot of thought.

One evening Jeanne and I sat down to a steak dinner. Having prepared just enough for the two of us, we looked forward to a quiet meal. Soon there was a knock on the door as a friend stopped by. Without giving it a second thought, we set another plate. As our house has always been a gathering place, we always expect drop-by guests and soon others began stopping by.

Each one got fed, but it was only after all our guests had left that we realized what had just happened. Jeanne and I had fed a whole house full of people with only two steaks, and once again by some miracle there were leftovers. Sounds amazing! I can only tell what we experienced firsthand.

If you dig deep enough into the history of food, you are certain to find an interesting beginning, sometimes lost in time. Food has even been used as a peace offering to a conquered nation. This was the case with the steak which was introduced to France after the battle of Waterloo by the occupying English armies.

Tastes vary when it comes to levels of done-ness. Some prefer their meat burnt to a crisp or a little pink in the middle, while others order their beef one breath short of the bovine’s last moo. Then there are the most daring of the bunch, the ones who don’t bother applying any flame to the meat at all.

Steak Tartar is a preparation of uncooked, chopped fillet, served with a raw egg and various seasonings. Chefs who claim to have create this dish include M. Deveaux at Maxim’s in 1920 and Eilerch in 1935 when he was the chef at the Restaurant Albert on the Champs-Elysees in Paris.

Basically, this culinary wonder is nothing more than dressed up raw meat. I wonder if maybe the real beginnings of this creation took place long before Maxim’s when some caveman broke a just laid dinosaur egg over his freshly-clubbed raw Mastodon. I guess we will never really know.

One of the more amazing incidents I had been involved in took place at a pot luck supper. Everyone was expected to bring something, so our contribution was my mother-in-law’s famous banana cream pie. Mary Piraino is an accomplished cook and as she was visiting, she gladly offered to bring two pies, one chocolate and one banana. With everyone else’s contributions, most certainly two pies would suffice.

Although we Americans have adopted pie as our own, as in “Its American as apple pie,” and as we make the assumption that pumpkin pie was our contribution at the first Thanksgiving table, the unassuming pie goes back many years before the founding of our country.

Larousse Gastronomique Culinary Encyclopediastates “The name is said to originate from Magpie, the bird notorious for collecting items and hiding them in its nest, reflecting the idea that a mixture of ingredients could be combined under the pie crust.” We are all familiar with the nursery rhyme which proclaims 4 and 20 blackbirds baked in a pie, but the classic version has little to do with birds.

There is some confusion over the terms pie and tart. A traditional British pie is made in a deep dish; it has a pastry lid, but not a pastry base. A tart is shallow, baked on a tart plate, which is deeper than your standard dinner plate.

When a lattice of pastry strips replaces the solid lid, the tart then becomes a lattice tart. The French open tart has a pastry base but no lid, and is now accepted as a tart especially if the filling is cooked.

A pie can also have a mashed potato topping, as in fish pie or shepherd’s pie and pie can also be served as a main course. The best known are steak and kidney pie, chicken pie, clam pie, and salmon pie.

Those which are traditionally served with custard or cream include pumpkin, pecan and blueberry.

Now if all that did nothing more than confuse you, let me get back to the pot luck and Mary’s two pies. Once we arrived, we realized two things were working against us. One was the unexpected amount of guests and two, the enormous popularity of Mary Piraino’s pies.

I was sitting next to my mother-in-law as she sliced the first large piece; in one helping taking a third of the first pie. I whispered “Mary you are not going to make it, so make the slices smaller.” She kept cutting away and somehow the pie was not getting any smaller, as people were coming back for seconds and some thirds. We both marveled at the pies that would not go away. In the end, who would believe we actually had one slice left. To this day whenever my mother-in-law and I discuss food, we shake our heads in amazement at the famous multiplying pie.

My last story has less to do with food than it does the beverage; after all it was water that Jesus changed into wine. Once more this story took place in the restaurant I managed in the town of Eureka Springs, Arkansas.

Every morning I followed a proscribed routine in getting the restaurant ready. One task was to prepare my industrial coffee maker for the day’s use. It was a simple procedure consisting of pouring several containers of water through the machine and then adding my grains.

I must confess I love coffee. Many times I have thought of giving up the habit, but I believe I would just miss it too much. I do not drink a lot of coffee, but my one or two cups in the morning sets the day off right.

Ever since the legendary goat herder noticed that his goats became agitated when they chewed the leaves of certain bushes or the crazy hermit used coffee to stay awake and pray, the world has had a love affair with the magical bean. Even the movies have cashed in on the trend. The next time you go to the movies, see if you can’t pick out the scene where coffee is somehow involved.

The 1952 film classic “The Turning Point” featured actor Edmund O’Brien as a naïve politician trying to clean rats out of the government. One memorable scene has Mr. O’Brien making coffee using a device called a ‘vacuum maker.’ In one scene, the ‘vacuum’ draws the finished coffee back down into the lower carafe. I bet the theatre had a run on coffee during the intermission.

In the 1960’s, movie makers experimented with a number of ideas to raise attendance, including a 3-D to horror scope where actors actually ran amok in the theatre, scaring the wits out of unsuspecting patrons. That quickly ended on a sour note when one of the ghoulish garbed actors got hit in the face with someone’s loaded purse.

One of the more inventive, though short-lived experiments, was something called smell-o-vision. At an appropriate time during the movie, say a walk through the rose garden, the theater would waft the scent through the vents. One of the more effective smells was that of brewing coffee; what a great marketing strategy.

You did not want to be in the movie house though when Randolph Scott drove his cattle across the Texas plains. Soon the idea faded into obscurity and we were left to use our imaginations.

Any film with alcoholics in it almost guaranteed to feature early morning ‘dark coffee’ scenes. The “Lost Weekend” is no exception. Ray Milland is portrayed as a boozer who is being peppered with the coffee making activities of Jane Wyman whose coffee maker gets overtime use as Wyman crusades to rehabilitate Milland.

All this brings me back to my own coffee story. I am not sure any filmmaker could have made a movie out of what happened that day, but once more, it was one of those unexplained moments where we can only shake our heads and wonder what actually happened.

This particular morning I opened as usual. Opening the top of the coffee maker, I poured my water through the machine. Only this time the water came out as coffee, not simply brown water, but coffee. Once again I repeated the process only to have the same thing occur.

Six or seven tries later, the same results. A friend dropped by for his morning cup and I explained the dilemma to him. Together we took the machine down off the shelf and examined the insides to see if there were some old grains left or residue.

What we found was nothing to give us an answer. In fact, we actually disassembled the machine to find out what was going on. When we placed the machine back in its spot, it still made coffee. By that time, word was getting around the building complex concerning this coffee maker.

I had a restaurant full of people with their own explanations, some believing everything from UFO’s to coffee maker gremlins. One shop owner, an obvious skeptic, suggested that if we tasted the coffee, something we had not yet thought of, that we would almost surely discover it was no more than colored water due to some problems in the tubing.

That was laid to rest as we sampled the brew. This was some of the best coffee I had ever tasted, leaving our skeptic friend scratching her head for an answer. All day long that coffeemaker kept making its wonderful brew while a steady stream of folks dropped by to talk and taste a cup on the house.

Never once that day did I ever have to put coffee grains in that machine. At day’s end, I closed the door and said goodnight to a most remarkable twelve hours of operation.

When I returned in the morning, once again, I went through my usual routine. I poured in the water, and the machine had returned to normal. This whole astounding story took place for only one day, but it sure boosted business, as people from then on wondered what kind of place I really was running.